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New Zealand - The World's Laboratory for Progressive Digital Legislation

BY David Eaves | Wednesday, September 18 2013

The wanted Mr. Kim Dotcom (mikesolita/flickr)

One nice advantage of having a large world with lots of diverse states is the range of experiments it offers us. Countries (or regions within them) can try out ideas, and if they work, others can copy them!

For example, in the world of drug policy, Portugal effectively decriminalized virtually all drugs. The result has been dramatic. And much of it positive. Some of the changes include a decline in both HIV diagnoses amongst drug users by 17 percent and drug use among adolescents (13-15 yrs). For those interested you can read more about this in a fantastic report by the Cato Institute written by Glenn Greenwald back in 2009 before he started exposing the unconstitutional and dangerous activities of the NSA. Now some 15 years later there have been increasing demands to decriminalize and even legalize drugs, especially in Latin America. But even the United States is changing, with both the states of Washington and Colorado opting to legalize marijuana. The lessons of Portugal have helped make the case, not by penetrating the public's imagination per se, but by showing policy elites that decriminalization not only works but it saves lives and saves money. Little Portugal may one day be remembered for changing the world.

I wonder if we might see a similar paper written about New Zealand ten years from now about technology policy. It may be that a number of Kiwis will counter the arguments in this post by exposing all the reasons why I'm wrong (which I'd welcome!) but at a glance, New Zealand would probably be the place I'd send a public servant or politician wanting to know more about how to do technology policy right.

So why is that?

First, for those who missed it, this summer New Zealand banned software patents. This is a stunning and entirely sensible accomplishment. Software patents, and the legal morass and drag on innovation they create, are an enormous problem. The idea that Amazon can patent "1-click" (e.g. the idea that you pre-store someone's credit card information so they can buy an item with a single click) is, well, a joke. This is a grand innovation that should be protected for years?

And yet, I can't think of a single other OECD member country that is likely to pass similar legislation. This means that it will be up to New Zealand to show that the software world will survive just fine without patents and the economy will not suddenly explode into flames. I also struggle to think of an OECD country where one of the most significant industry groups - the Institute of IT Professionals appeared - would not only both support such a measure but help push its passage:

The nearly unanimous passage of the Bill was also greeted by Institute of IT Professionals (IITP) chief executive Paul Matthews, who congratulated [Commerce Minister] Foss for listening to the IT industry and ensuring that software patents were excluded.

Did I mention that the bill passed almost unanimously?

Second, New Zealanders are further up the learning curve around the dangerous willingness their government - and foreign governments - have for illegally surveilling them online.

The arrest of Kim Dotcom over MegaUpload has sparked some investigations into how closely the country’s police and intelligence services follow the law. (For an excellent timeline of the Kim Dotcom saga, check out this link). This is because Kim Dotcom was illegally spied on by New Zealand's intelligence services and police force, at the behest of the United States, which is now seeking to extradite him. The arrest and subsequent fall out has piqued public interest and lead to investigations including the Kitteridge report (PDF) which revealed that "as many as 88 individuals have been unlawfully spied on" by the country's Government Communications Security Bureau.

I wonder if the Snowden documents and subsequent furor probably surprised New Zealanders less than many of their counterparts in other countries since it was less a bombshell than another data point on a trend line.

I don't want to overplay the impact of the Kim Dotcom scandal. It has not, as far as I can tell, lead to a complete overhaul of the rules that govern intelligence gathering and online security. That said, I suspect, it has created a political climate that may be more (healthily) distrustful of government intelligence services and the intelligence services of the United States. As a result, it is likely that politicians have been more sensitive to this matter for a year or two longer than elsewhere and that public servants are more accustomed at policies through the lens of its impact on rights and privacy of citizens than in many other countries.

Finally, (and this is somewhat related to the first point) New Zealand has, from what I can tell, a remarkably strong open source community. I'm not sure why this is the case, but suspect that people like Nat Torkington - and open source and open data advocate in New Zealand - and others like him play a role in it. More interestingly, this community has had influence across the political spectrum. The centre left labour party deserves much of the credit for the patent reform while the centre-right New Zealand National Party has embraced both open data. The country was among the first to embrace open source as a viable option when procuring software and in 2003 the government developed an official open source policy to help clear the path for greater use of open source software. This contrasts sharply with my experience in Canada where, as late as 2008, open source was still seen by many government officials as a dangerous (some might say cancerous?) option that needed to be banned and/or killed.

All this is to say that in both the public (e.g. civil society and the private sector) and within government there is greater expertise around thinking about open source solutions and so an ability to ask different questions about intellectual property and definitions of the public good. While I recognize that this exists in many countries now, it has existed longer in New Zealand than in most, which suggests that it enjoys greater acceptance in senior ranks and there is greater experience in thinking about and engaging these perspectives.

I share all this for two reasons:

First, I would keep my eye on New Zealand. This is clearly a place where something is happening in a way that may not be possible in other OECD countries. The small size of its economy (and so relative lack of importance to the major proprietary software vendors) combined with a sufficient policy agreement both among the public and elites enables the country to overcome both internal and external lobbying and pressure that would likely sink similar initiatives elsewhere. And while New Zealand's influence may be limited, don't underestimate the power of example. Portugal also has limited influence, but its example has helped show the world that the US -led narrative on the "war on drugs" can be countered. In many ways this is often how it has to happen. Innovation, particularly in policy, often comes from the margins.

Second, if a policy maker, public servant or politician comes to me and asks me who to talk to around digital policy, I increasingly find myself looking at New Zealand as the place that is the most compelling. I have similar advice for PhD students. Indeed, if what I'm arguing is true, we need research to describe, better than I have, the conditions that lead to this outcome as well as the impact these policies are having on the economy, government and society. Sadly, I have no names to give to those I suggest this idea to, but I figure they'll find someone in the government to talk to, since, as a bonus to all this, I've always found New Zealanders to be exceedingly friendly.

So keep an eye on New Zealand, it could be the place where some of the most progressive technology policies first get experimented with. It would be a shame if no one noticed.
(Again If some New Zealanders want to tell me I'm wrong, please do. Obviously, you know your country better than I do).

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